Comparing BYU’s 1979, 2019 China tours

McKenna Wright introduces the BYU China Spectacular with narration in fluent Mandarin. The audience cheers after the first sentence. (Steve Fidel)

A spotlight lands on a small blonde, blue-eyed performer in a formal gown. Her mouth opens and she begins a narration in Mandarin. The Chinese crowd cheers at the unexpected use of their native language.

BYU’s first performance in China in 1979 began in a similar way to how this year’s BYU China Spectacular show opened.

In 1979, the BYU Young Ambassadors arrived at the airport in Beijing unable to pass through customs because of the large number of costumes and tech they had brought.

As the first American collegiate performing group to enter China after 30 years, the airport officials were hesitant to permit the Young Ambassadors’ equipment to pass.

BYU was the first American collegiate performing group to enter China after the 30 year closure period between China and the United States. The BYU Young Ambassadors and Living Legends pose for a group picture at the Great Wall. BYU)

At that moment, a small blonde, blue-eyed performer from the team bravely stepped forward and gave a narration in Mandarin. Other performers joined her for the song Moi Li Hua, a well-known Chinese folk song, and the officials began to clap and sing along.

Young Ambassadors Director Randall Boothe recounted the scene from 40 years ago. He said he was originally unsure of what would happen because of a telegram BYU received just three days before the group flew to China that read, “Please bring only simple musical instruments for possible performances in schools and factories—pending approval.”

“We told Elder Faust about the telegram and (he) said ‘Where is your faith? The Lord will open the door. We’ve prepared; just bring everything, and we’ll work through it,'” Boothe said.

Just as Elder Faust had said, the Lord opened the door and the Young Ambassadors made it through customs with everything. But that was not the end of their obstacles—the show still needed to be approved and BYU hadn’t budgeted the cost of shipping the gear.

When the group arrived in Beijing the next day, they did a trial performance at the National Minorities Institute in front of a panel of Chinese officials, according to Boothe.

“There was one row of chairs for these Chinese officials. They sat there and did not applaud, they just watched,” Boothe said. “When (the performance) ended, they stood up and told our interpreter it was a good show.”

The Young Ambassadors were invited to perform at the Red Tower the next night, which at the time was the most prestigious concert hall in Beijing, and continued on to more performances.

Cindi Sainsbury, one of the performers at the time, said she wasn’t positive if the group would be received well by the Chinese people, but they loved the performance.

“At first, it was just a maybe that we would perform, and then we performed in a lot of places,” Sainsbury said.

BYU performing group captures the attention of the audience in China in 1979. (BYU)

BYU didn’t have to worry about the shipment of their gear because one of the Chinese organizations paid for all of the equipment to be moved to each of the locations. 

This unknown, faith-filled beginning was the start of a relationship that has lasted for 40 years. Since 1979, 30 BYU performing groups have gone to China alongside study abroad programs and hundreds of exchange students.                           

Comparing the 1979 and 2019 shows

Sainsbury attended the 2019 BYU China Spectacular in Provo and said she was surprised to see some of the same numbers the 1979 group performed, such as Moi Li Hua and West Side Story.

“The basic show is a lot the same,” Sainsbury said. “A couple of (the numbers) have the same arrangements that we did back then. Moi Li Hua is a little more showy, but the people will sing it with (them) in the same spirit.”

Two Young Ambassadors perform in the 1979 show, left, compared to eight different performing groups gathering on stage for the first number “Come Alive” in the 2019 BYU China Spectacular, right. (Steve Fidel)

The 1979 performing group had about 28 performers comprised of the Young Ambassadors and a few Living Legends members. The 2019 BYU China Spectacular took 160 students from eight performing groups.

The 1979 Young Ambassadors were on tour in Europe before heading to China, which left them with only six weeks to learn their entire show for China. Boothe, who directed both the 1979 and 2019 tours, said the cast went to night classes to learn Mandarin for the performance.

This year’s 40th-anniversary performance had been in the works for more than two years before the group landed in Beijing. The different performing groups prepared for the 2019 BYU China Spectacular for almost a year. The collaboration between all of the groups and finer details came together in the 2019 Winter semester.

Both the 1979 and 2019 groups experienced difficulties with equipment making it through customs. This year, the tech equipment didn’t even make it to China with the performing groups. In a turn of events, all of the equipment was put on the wrong plane—going to Newark, New Jersey.

It took a week to ship to China and a few days to go through customs. The directors and other members didn’t miss a beat. On their first day in China, they raced to Ikea to replace props and a local performing store to rent sound and lighting equipment. The tech arrived in Shanghai just in time for the last two performances of the tour. 

This experience didn’t deter the cast, directors nor the tech crew from putting on a great show. The 2019 BYU China Spectacular company went forward with faith just as Elder Faust and the 1979 performing group and did their best to give all they had for their Chinese audiences.


See the photo gallery below for pictures of the 1979 performing group tour.

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